On collision course: scarcity and African patronage systems

“If you see people throwing stones, it means if they had guns, they would have been shooting”, observes Frederick, an economics grad who drives a motorcycle taxi in Douala, Cameroon. 

The FT’s Matthew Green explains:

Only a few crumbs were left on the counter at the Boulangerie du Rail delicatessen in Douala after looters swept the shelves of cake, croissants and champagne… “People are hungry, they have nothing to eat,” said Felix Djoyo, the manager, who had locked himself behind a metal door while shanty dwellers ransacked his bottles of Bordeaux.

The crisis in Cameroon might have generated few headlines abroad, but the violence shows how soaring oil and food prices on global markets are threatening the patronage systems propping up some of Africa’s longest-serving leaders.  Protests linked to surging inflation have broken out in Guinea and Burkina Faso in recent months, where presidents have ruled for more than two decades. Niger, Ghana and Senegal have also seen demonstrations …

The government has agreed to a small reduction in fuel prices to placate protesters, saying it cannot afford the kinds of subsidies needed to shield the economy from global market forces. But many residents blame Mr Biya for the hardship, saying years of venal rule have skewed the economy to favour a tiny elite.

So, another point to add to the growing list of what rising food and energy prices mean for Africa: patronage systems come under increasing stress in conditions of scarcity.  Look at Kenya.  People at the tops of agencies are acutely aware of the problem – DFID’s Douglas Alexander and the World Bank’s Bob Zoellick both returned from Davos fired up about the political impacts of scarcity issues, for instance.  Some people in country offices get it, too. 

But the underlying problem is still that many donor agencies’ culture is all about disbursing cash – rather than having a really sophisticated analysis of endogenous drivers of change and a theory of influence to go with it.  Neither the old problem of patronage nor the newer problem of scarcity issues is really that well understood in donor agency cultures.  We’d better hope they get up to speed pretty fast…